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  • Timothy P. Smith MS, RD, LDN

What's up with a "Gluten-Free" diet?

Nutrition fads can gain an impressive amount of traction in a very short period of time. Take the Twinkie Diet for example; someone somewhere came up with this diet, and after a few people saw their weight decrease, everyone was talking about it. Before you know it, there's your coworker, talking about how they lost 15 pounds eating nothing but Twinkies and soda.


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Calling the Twinkie Diet's bluff is much easier than calling the bluff of other mainstream nutrition programs such as a Mediterranean Diet, or "keto". This type of ambiguity can make it difficult to discern which diets work, and which diets don’t; such is the case for a gluten-free diet. Dietitians know avoiding gluten helps those with Celiac Disease, but what about everyone else? Let's talk about it.



Side-Tangent: It’s important, first, to realize that gluten is a mostly benign protein found in nearly everything we eat. Gluten can be found in many foods, such as:

  • Beer

  • Breads, pasta, cereal, and pie

  • Chips and French fries

  • Sauces

  • Candy, cookies, and cakes

  • Cold cuts and sausage


The takeaway: Gluten is found in plenty of common, American, processed foods; it’s nearly impossible to avoid it.

 

With the above information in mind, let's cover some questions I've received about following a gluten-free diet, and discuss if/how this thing actually works.

 

What exactly is Celiac disease, and why is gluten such an issue for those affected by it?


Celiac disease is a disease characterized by poor absorption of nutrients in the GI tract when gluten is present. When someone with this disorder consumes food stuff containing gluten, it can damage the lining of the intestines and hinder proper absorption of nutrients in the small intestine. Also, for individuals with Celiac disease, side effects of consuming gluten can include severe abdominal pain, diarrhea, and bloating.


"[...] for individuals with Celiac disease, side effects of consuming gluten can include severe abdominal pain, diarrhea, and bloating."


But my friend doesn’t have Celiac disease and still eats gluten-free. Why would she go out of her way to eat such a diet?


Well, your friend may not have Celiac disease but she may be “gluten sensitive” or “gluten intolerant”. Although its existence is still debated, gluten sensitivity is a relatively well-established condition within the medical community. Gluten sensitivity is similar to Celiac disease but it’s not quite as easy to diagnose. While Celiac disease has more radical symptoms and is diagnosed objectively (via biopsy/blood tests) gluten sensitivity is normally diagnosed when someone notices bloating or abdominal pain when eating foods containing gluten. These two groups should be the only ones who experience remarkable side effects as a consequence of consuming gluten.


 

Well, my friend doesn’t have Celiac disease or gluten intolerance, either. He just says it’s healthier; why?


To be brutally honest, nobody really knows; probably not even your friend. A 2015 survey from Discovery.com revealed that 29 percent of Americans have thought about dropping the protein from their diet, while only 1 in 133 Americans actually has Celiac disease. With thousands of people and celebrities claiming drastic weight loss and “feeling better” since ceasing gluten consumption, it’s tempting to jump onboard the gluten-free train. However, it’s important to note there’s very little scientific evidence supporting the idea that avoiding gluten alone is beneficial for someone who doesn’t have Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.


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Instead, many healthcare professionals have an alternative theory as to why some people may experience weight loss or “feel healthier” when avoiding foods with gluten. Scroll back up and take a look at that list of foods containing gluten; none of it really looks good for you. Some researchers suggest that avoiding gluten may simply help to remove some detrimental foods from the diet. If you’re avoiding gluten (even if it’s just because you think it’s good for you) you may inadvertently remove a lot of simple carbohydrates from the diet; this would likely confer big health benefits, regardless of gluten.


 

"So, is a gluten-free diet just a fad?"


Unless you have been diagnosed with Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, the evidence suggests that any benefit reaped from a gluten-free diet is more likely due to you eating less junk. But guess what? If that pattern of eating works for you, then stick with it!



One last thing: If you notice abdominal pain, headaches, abnormal bloating, or diarrhea when you consume foods containing gluten, don't ignore it. You may want to consider talking to your physician about it; an estimated 3 million Americans suffer from Celiac disease and don’t know it.


Thank you for reading,


Tim


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Citation Links:

http://www.mayoclinic.org/gluten-free-diet/ART-20048530?pg=1

http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/celiac/#examples

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/gluten-free-diet-fad-are-celiac-disease-rates-actually-rising/

http://www.webmd.com/diet/news/20120220/gluten-sensitivity-fact-or-fad

http://news.discovery.com/human/health/gluten-free-is-it-a-fad-or-healthy-diet-1303071.htm

http://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/celiac-disease/features/gluten-intolerance-against-grain

https://www.cureceliacdisease.org/wp-content/uploads/341_CDCFactSheets8_FactsFigures.pdf


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